Monday, January 8, 2007


?d you think to utter “Eugene O’Neill” and “Fabio” in the same breath, but with “Desire Under the Elms” the esteemed playwright reveals his bodice-ripping side in this tale of sex, revenge, and a 19th century game of “Who’s your daddy?”

This potboiler comes with a pedigree. For his 1924 foray into American realism, Mr. O’Neill looked to the Greeks, incorporating elements of the Oedipus trilogy, “Medea” and “Phaedra,” into his tragedy about a New England farming family. The Cabot clan’s flinty patriarch, Ephraim (Kevin Adams), may thunder about a hard and wrathful God, but it seems to be a Christian one in name only. Ephraim’s worship and florid deification of the Earth and nature suggests a pagan connection, and the mingling of lust and fertility (agrarian and otherwise) leads you to believe Dionysus may be the man upstairs.

Similarly, the cool-eyed actions of Ephraim’s third wife Abbie (Susan Marie Rhea), a young and hot-to-trot woman who brazenly throws herself at youngest son Eben (Parker Dixon), recall the epic, single-minded rage of Medea.

Destiny in the Greek sense of the word is at work here, as the characters march toward their prescribed fates. A strain of fatalism runs throughout “Desire Under the Elms” in the patterns of incest that emerge in the Cabot family. Not only do father and son share Abbie, the sexual opportunism also goes back in generations of Cabots, including Eben’s brothers Simeon (John Geoffrion) and Peter (Colin Smith), who join in sharing Min, the town prostitute. A bit of too-close for comfort coziness appears to have existed between Eben and his late mother, Ephraim’s second wife, as well.

In American Century Theater’s stark and taut production under the firm guidance of William Aitken, there isn’t a lot to distract you from the characters and their physical desires. A three-level set gives the barest suggestion of a comfortable Yankee farmhouse and some dulcimer music provides a sense of time, but character and psychological forces otherwise drive this production.

And what characters they are. Ephraim, vigorously played by Mr. Adams, displays the fury and indifferent cruelty of the god he so adamantly calls upon in time of need. He is more a biblical figurehead than a man, a contrast to the poetry and fumbling awareness of the character of Eben. Mr. Dixon’s sensitive portrayal shows Eben to be keenly aware of the natural forces that shape him and his family, although he is not completely beholden to them. His struggles to rebel against or reshape his destiny make him a modern creation.

While her choices are those of a Greek tragedy heroine, the character of Abbie straddles dramatic traditions. Abbie sins against nature and pays for it, but there is also a sense that after the total destruction of the life she tries so hard to hold onto, she achieves a certain freedom and love previously denied to her.

Concentrating on the play’s motif of sex, death and lost mothers was a wise move for American Century, a theater with modest resources. By emphasizing strong acting and epic characters, this is a “Desire Under the Elms” that deserves to emerge from the shadows.

WHAT: “Desire Under the Elms,” by Eugene O’Neill

WHERE: American Century Theater, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 3.

TICKETS: $23 to $29

PHONE: 703/553-8782


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